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Which organisation has 41,000 branches spread all over the country, many with a full-time employee in charge, and backed up by an army of volunteers on hand to help?
Not Tesco's but, the Christian Churches in this country, 80% of which are used for some form of community activity every week, with over 1.6 million people involved - these activities range through drop- in centres, cafés, AA Meetings, Keep Fit groups, lunch clubs, young mums groups, Post Office, SureStart programmes, GP Surgeries, village co-operatives, arts centres - the list is endless, and all alongside the primary function of worship and prayer. The Prime Minister, talking about the Big Society - which is all about helping people to come together locally to improve their own lives and build their communities - has said that this is 'the biggest possible opportunity for churches up and down the country to have a real social mission.' Amen to that, but why then torpedo that very worthy project by removing the zero rating of VAT on alterations to listed buildings - as the Chancellor has done in his recent Budget.
The extra cost to congregations across the C of E is an estimated £20million, and the burden on Church of England volunteers for raising funds for alterations to make their buildings fit for purpose - able to deliver the Big Society - is disproportionately high. This is not good news.
As Archdeacon, I am responsible for 81 City Churches and all of these are listed. We use the zero rating exemption rather than the Listed Places of Worship Scheme, especially for £50k plus projects. Everything will now have to go through LPW making our risk and dependency greater and the LPW is not a big enough fund.
We need to make our views known to government, and this is already happening - and one person who has already had quite an impact is Pamela Greener, wife of the Dean of Wakefield Cathedral, who has been stirred to such a pitch that she has taken to song, and her VAT Ditty has gone viral on YouTube. But you don't need your computer because she's here in person to share her latest composition with us.
If you're wondering what all this has to do with the Gospel and Christianity, then remember our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus tells us to love God, and flowing from that to love our neighbour. Down the centuries ever since, the Church has responded to that command. How? On a personal level by encouraging loving care and service of others, but institutionally through involvement in education, in medical care, in work with the marginalised and the homeless, and in countless local projects.
Here in London the Diocese of London manages 150 social responsibility projects, working with young people, asylum seekers, the elderly, refugees and homeless people. Many of these community projects are run from church buildings which are being adapted for more sustainable use. In all these ways the Church is delivering the Big Society which is a flagship initiative of this government. It's how we as a church, individually and institutionally, love our neighbour. There is therefore a spiritual dimension to this campaign and that's why I urge you to sign the e-petition.
As a church we want to ensure that our unique legacy of buildings in every corner of the land is available for worship and for use by the wider community, in obedience to Jesus' command to love God and love our neighbour. That's why this petition is important. It is a spiritual imperative.